It’s no secret that herbal products are practically flying off drugstore shelves.
By the end of this year, sales are expected to hit $2 billion, with more than 28 million Americans reported taking one or more herbal supplements.
Aspirin, tranquilizers, and laxatives all have their roots in herbal remedies and folk medicines.
For thousands of years, herbs have been used to remedy a wide range of health problems and to maintain good health—including more than 4,000 herb-related treatments—with many focusing on plants and their healing qualities, especially in Appalachia.
Joyce Ruckle of Shady Spring is an enthusiastic herbalist and holistic medicine authority on herbal cures and Appalachian folk remedies.
Her purpose now is to help educate the public on the safe use of herbs.
“Herbs have made a tremendous comeback in medicine during the last few decades,” Ruckle explains as she picks up a jar of fennel seeds in her country-style kitchen. She opens the container, pops a handful of the grains into her mouth. “Fennel alleviates gas and promotes digestion,” she says. “The seeds have a pleasant licorice-like flavor.”
With herbs, according to Ruckle, the patient oversees the treatment, not the physician. “If you use herbs as preventive medicine, it keeps you away from the doctor’s office.”
Pharmaceutical firms, meanwhile, routinely scour primitive jungles and other exotic locations for plants that may someday lead to new wonder drugs. But they aren’t the only ones interested in collecting aromatic plants used in medicines and seasonings.
Ruckle grows them in her backyard garden.
“I’ve always had a personal interest in herbs,” she says. “I couldn’t live without them.”
Ruckle recalls getting chamomile tea when she was a child.
“The tea is noted for calming restless children,” she affirms. “My grandmother gave it to me in the evenings before bedtime.”
And like her relatives, Ruckle still uses many of the herbs for health reasons. “Most all the culinary herbs are good for you. They increase your blood flow and decrease your blood pressure.
“Garlic fights off a good many colds and is good for your heart, good for your respiratory system. I use it nearly every meal.”
Herbs basically are described as perennial plants whose soft or succulent stems die down to ground level every year. A modern definition of an herb could be any plant, generally aromatic or fragrant, whose parts—whether leaf, flower, seed, or root—are of use in food flavoring, medicine, or cosmetics.
Ruckle has found a variety of uses for the herbs she cultivates near her farmhouse. “I use herbs to make insect repellent for the home or to spray on the body. Others can be used cosmetically—in facial oils, or for bath or shower, even for lotion.”
In the culinary line, Ruckle has 10 favorite herbs: basil, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, cilantro, dill, parsley, garlic, and fennel.
Miscellaneous herbs stored in Ruckle’s pantry include pennyroyal, lavender, chamomile, bee balm, tansy, and spearmint. “These are good for hot or cold tea,” she says.
Herbs seem more popular today on the global market than they have ever been, partly because of the mysticism and legend that surrounds them, according to consumers.
But that’s no surprise to the soft-spoken country folk of Appalachia who for centuries have been using herbs and plants for medicinal purposes.
In fact, people of the hills often cling to herbal remedies as part of their cultural heritage, according to Amos Russel Lilly of Camp Creek.
“Holding on to such beliefs becomes almost a spiritual matter,” says the retired hill-land farmer and former sheep rancher. “It keeps us in touch with loving relatives who are no longer with us. It allows us to recall a time when Mother Nature and faith were all our ancestors had to work with.”
Old folk remedies were part of Lilly’s early boyhood education in Mercer County.
A popular worming remedy of his day was made from peach tree bark, and a popular cure for poison ivy was bark from a sycamore.
Now 83, Lilly says he’s getting back to nature’s healing handouts and curious old-fashioned cures by searching out wild herbs in the woods near his home.
The stalwart user of all kinds of mountain cures describes some of the traditional treatments of his clan:
“Baking a polecat in the oven, my ancestors rendered the fat of the animal to make oil used for doctoring rheumatism. A plant called snakeweed was a popular potion for poisons secreted by venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes.”
For colds and congestion, there were other remedies:
“Take mustard seeds and grind ‘em up, mix ‘em with hog lard, and grease a baby’s back and chest, and wrap it up in a flannel cloth. It’d sweat the pneumonia out of a child’s lungs.
“Black mustard was extremely useful in preparing poultices to alleviate congestion, especially of the chest. You bathed in it to ease a cough or banish a headache.”
Other therapeutic concoctions employed by communal elders to rid children of stomach ailments during Lilly’s early childhood included an herbal remedy called vermifuge.
“Vermifuge, a kind of weed with fine seeds, mixed with taffy, then mixed with molasses, was given to kids like candy, given for stomach worms. Everybody had ‘em.”
Lilly, a born-again Baptist, and former Sunday school teacher, adds methodically: “Castor oil and laxatives were the hardest to take of any remedy, but you only had to take them once or twice a year.”
For boils and carbuncles there was a special remedy.
“You’d cook oatmeal and make a poultice or peel the membrane from inside an eggshell and place it on the sore. It’d draw the boil to a head and you could pull the core out.”
Lilly still uses some of the salves, ointments and oils employed by his ancestors more than a century ago.
“Sassafras makes good medicine for the eyes as well as for the stomach,” muses Lilly, as he prepares a mixture of the sappy solution at his home.
He pours out a portion of the remedy and swishes it over his tongue. Then he dabs a drop of the liquid on his eyelids, explaining that it reduces irritation.
And though Lilly admits that some of the old remedies probably worked because the country folk believed in their curative powers, he maintains the success of some treatments can be explained scientifically.
“There’s no question that certain plants do have healing powers,” he says. “After all, psychological well-being is part of the healing process.”
Top o’ the morning!
Editor’s note: Joyce Ruckle’s kitchen is laden with culinary vinegars and oils made from fresh herbs that she grows in her backyard garden. She uses the mysterious plants in a variety of ways—for cooking, for cosmetics, for medicine, and for insect repellents. Jars of dried herbs are scattered everywhere in her homebased.
Amos Lilly of Camp Creek in Mercer County is perhaps best known for his knowledge of herbs and his familiarity with old folk remedies. He says he’s not surprised that by the end of this year, herbal product sales are expected to hit $2 billion dollars. In a recent Gallup survey, more than 28 million Americans reported taking one or more herbal supplements. Lilly says the popular herbal potions, like those he mixes up at his home, are an important part of his heritage.